"My life is small and simple, but it’s a better one than I ever thought I’d have,” explains Cash Pruitt, protagonist of Jeff Zentner’s fourth novel, In the Wild Light. “I have what I love: my grandparents, the satisfaction of working with my hands to bring a lawn into perfect order, the rhythm of paddling my canoe.”
But Cash’s life was not always simple, and before he met his best friend Delany Doyle, he struggled alone to fit in. When the two friends make an important scientific discovery, they’re faced with a different kind of struggle: Will they stay in Sawyer, Tenn., forever, hanging on to the semblance of stability they’ve found? Or will they risk it all for a different life?
Cash and Delaney met at a Narateen meeting in middle school, initially bonding over their mothers’ addictions. Now juniors in high school, they have things pretty much figured out. They’ve successfully avoided the social pitfalls of high school, watching TV with Cash’s Pawpaw and canoeing on weekends. They have summer jobs, one of which supplies free ice cream. Their lives are moving on as swiftly as the water in their beloved Pigeon River.
But Delaney has a hunch that there is something special in the caves of Sawyer. No, it’s more than a hunch — her innate ability to recognize patterns and her voracious appetite for learning lead her to believe that the caves hold invaluable scientific treasure. And she’s right: On one of their exploring expeditions, the two friends discover a powerful strain of mold with antibiotic properties, a feat that eventually earns them both scholarships to Middleford Academy, a Northeastern prep school.
As Delaney struggles to schedule radio interviews on her break at Dairy Queen, relieved to have another option than living with her mostly absent mom, Cash is torn. How can he choose between his best friend and his Pawpaw, who is suffering from emphysema? Both paths promise deep loss and deep joy. “I guess uncertainty isn’t always something you can conquer,” he concludes. “Sometimes it’s a path you have to take.”
You might have gathered by now that this bildungsroman is set in Appalachia. I waited to mention it because Appalachia, despite the cultural and political focus on the region in recent years, is not the center of this book. Zentner makes it the setting and not the protagonist. The protagonist and narrator is Cash Pruitt. The setting is Sawyer, an Appalachian town full of natural beauty, with the economic hardships endemic to Southern towns whose main industries have left.
All four of Zentner’s novels to date are set in Tennessee, and three feature characters from under-resourced economic backgrounds. It would be easy for these stories to lapse into cliché, but Zentner has earned his readers’ trust by prioritizing character development first. In the Wild Light does feature two mothers who are opioid addicts, and the main characters live or have lived in trailers and struggle financially, but the book avoids capitalizing on Appalachian stereotypes by making these characters fully human — unique individuals who are influenced by the setting while influencing it as well. Their dialogue taps into a universal humanity that transcends region.
The voices of Cash and Delaney ring true. I taught high school English in urban Norfolk, Va., for three years and in rural Lebanon, Tenn., for seven. My students in both settings wrote journal entries every school day, and I read each one. The journals at both schools mirrored the themes in this book: friendship, family, love and loss. Yes, I only read about pageants, fender flares and the light of the sunrise from a tree stand in Lebanon, but my students’ journals sounded like Cash Pruitt’s poems.
In Cash’s words: “When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty whenever and wherever you find it. You let it save you, if only for the time it takes for a snowflake to melt on your tongue or for the sun to sink below the horizon in a wildfire of clouds. No matter what else might be troubling your mind. You recognize it for something that can’t be taken from you.”
In the Wild Light is a powerful addition to Zentner’s body of work, a novel that will resonate with teen and adult readers alike.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.